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How to Ask Clarifying Questions to Get Missing Details on Tasks

Clarifying questions

Have you ever heard the "assume" joke? When you assume, you make an "ass" out of "u" and "me?"

Silliness aside, there is some wisdom to that.

Imagine if each time someone assigned you a task that didn't include all the necessary details, you assumed the missing parts. Maybe you would take your best guess at the due date, who you should submit the final product to, or what a successful version of the finished task should look like.

As top assistants, we know better. However, are you able to get all of the information you need at the get-go, or do you circle back with several one-offs?

Learning how to ask effective clarifying questions is an important skill that can save lots of time and stress for you and the person assigning the task. We get such a variety of tasks thrown our way and often by many different people, so it helps to take the time to consider what pieces of information might be missing when we are in the process of being assigned something.

Obtaining information

Use open-ended questions

Closed-ended questions are more limiting than open-ended ones. If you are hoping to increase your chances of obtaining additional information, then re-word your question accordingly.

Here's an example:

  • Closed-ended: Do you want a hotel room with a full ocean view?

  • Open-ended: What criteria do you have for your hotel room booking?

Using the word "exactly"

Use the word "exactly"

If the person assigning the task uses an unfamiliar word, acronym, name or something else that you are not familiar with, try asking for clarification using the word "exactly" somewhere inside the question.

For example, "What exactly do you mean by CTA?"

You will usually get a more precise response, which will help you to better understand the unfamiliar item.

Who, what, when, where, why, and how?

Who, what, when, where, why, and how?

Taking a moment to reflect on the basic "who, what, when, where, why, and how" questions will help any gaps in information to become evident.

It might sound drawn out to think about each one, but once you get in the habit of doing so, the process is actually quite quick.

Reviewing understanding of a task

Recap your understanding

By providing an overview of your understanding of the task, you will give the person assigning it an opportunity to add additional details and to correct any misunderstandings.

For example, "To review, I will be researching hotels closest to XYZ's conference on 123 Main St. with availability for two nights from December 16-18. Your preference is a 4+ star hotel with internet access and a restaurant on-site that can accommodate gluten-free dietary needs. You also would like a king-size bed, a desk, and to be far from the elevator."

Momentary silence

Allow for momentary silence

When you ask great clarifying questions, sometimes the other person needs a moment to answer. Give them the time they need to look things up or ponder. Silence can be uncomfortable, but uninterrupted thought processes can be necessary and sometimes require a few prolonged moments.

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